The EU has been unsuccessful in its efforts to promote rule-of-law reforms in the Western Balkans, the EU’s auditors said in a report published Monday.
The bloc spent about €700 million between 2014 and 2020 to help Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo make headway on reforms in areas such as independence of the judiciary. But the European Court of Auditors concluded in its report that this investment has had little impact on the region.
“EU support for the rule of law in Western Balkans has clearly not been successful in bringing about wholesale change,” said Juhan Parts, the court member responsible for the report.
Many EU governments see establishing high democratic standards in the EU’s Western Balkan neighborhood as important for the bloc’s own stability and security, particularly as all six countries in the region aspire to join the EU one day.
“The modest progress made over the last 20 years threatens the overall sustainability of the EU support provided under the accession process,” Parts said. “Constant reforms lose credibility if they do not deliver tangible results.”
The auditors point to a lack of political will in the region, as well as shortcomings in the European Commission’s own approach to projects in the Western Balkans, as contributing to the failure to make progress.
“Our audit of the sampled projects shows that, where project components focus on technical assistance, enhancing capacity and institutional efficiency, political support was strong and these activities generally proceed according to plan,” the auditors wrote.
“Where components target, for example, amendments to the legislative framework in order to strengthen independence and accountability … then political commitment was often weaker,” the auditors said.
The auditors also noted that “the EU’s in-country support for civil society action on the rule of law is insufficient” and raised concerns that EU-backed projects may not be financially sustainable after European support ends.
Moreover, funding allocated for the region under the 2014-2020 Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA), according to the auditors, lacked strict clauses that would link stalled reforms to funding.
EU delegations have “rarely exploited the possibility of suspending IPA financial support if reforms are not progressing satisfactorily,” the Court of Auditors noted.
Given these challenges, the auditors are now advocating for a set of changes to how the bloc approaches rule-of-law reforms in the Western Balkans. The Court of Auditors has issued recommendations including establishing impact indicators on issues such as freedom of expression, along with milestones for monitoring progress on them.
Another recommendation is for the European Commission and the European External Action Service, the bloc’s foreign service wing, to boost support for independent civil society and journalists in the region, as well as link disbursement of new funds more closely to progress on rule-of-law criteria.
A spokesperson for the European Commission said that it welcomes the auditors’ report, calling it a “useful contribution.”
“The rule of law remains the cornerstone of the accession process and will determine enlargement partners’ overall pace of progress on their path towards the EU,” the spokesperson said in an email, adding that “while important progress was recorded particularly in some [Western Balkans] partners, challenges in the rule of law in the region persist and further efforts in this fundamental area of EU enlargement policy are needed.”
The spokesperson also noted the EU updated its approach toward expansion in 2020 and now has “a stronger focus on the rule of law in the Western Balkans.”